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Deal or no deal? Iran nuclear talks deadline hovers over AIPAC conference

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center left) prepares to sit down with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (center right) in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2014, before they begin a bilateral meeting focused on Iran's nuclear program. Credit: U.S. State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center left) prepares to sit down with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (center right) in Vienna, Austria, on July 14, 2014, before they begin a bilateral meeting focused on Iran's nuclear program. Credit: U.S. State Department.

WASHINGTON, DC—As 16,000 people gathered for the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference from March 1-3, much attention was transfixed three weeks ahead on the calendar. Beyond the short-term hoopla surrounding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, looming large was a March 24 deadline for Iran and world powers to reach a political framework agreement in their nuclear negotiations.

Prognostications were abound on what shape a framework agreement may take and what the response of Congress would be to a deal—or the absence of a deal.

“I do think the negotiators have made enough progress that they will declare by the end of March that they have an understanding on a political framework,” said Gary Samore, President Barack Obama’s former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, at an AIPAC conference breakout session.

The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, initiated by U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), would impose new sanctions on Iran if the Islamic Republic does not reach an agreement with the P5+1 powers by March 24. But Obama has vowed to veto new sanctions legislation if it passes.

“My guess is, Congress does not pass new sanctions with a two-thirds vote over a presidential veto, and Congress does not reduce the existing sanctions,” said U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a leading Democratic advocate for tougher sanctions against Iran. “There will be a debate as to whether the existing sanctions laws allow the president to waive them.”

Member of Knesset Erel Margalit (Labor) told that the purpose of a nuclear deal should be to derail the military nature of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, not to merely delay those capabilities.

“I’m willing to use a stick and a carrot, and I think the [Obama] administration’s carrot approach is something I’m ready to appreciate, but I’d like to see the stick,” Margalit said.

According to Sherman, what stands in the way of new Iran sanctions is the scenario in which members of Congress who do not prioritize foreign policy view the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech about Iran—which the White House has opposed on the grounds that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not consult the president about inviting the prime minister—as a “personality contest” between Netanyahu and Obama. If a particular Congressional district is heavy on Obama supporters, that district’s federal legislator will naturally side with Obama in the dispute on the speech and the sanctions, Sherman said.

“It will be difficult to convince members of Congress this year, who are Democrats… to vote against Obama’s position on sanctions now that it’s such a personal, high-profile issue,” he said.

Samore—currently the executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs—said Iran and its negotiating partners “have made enough progress that they will declare by the end of March that they have an understanding on a political framework.” Then, the details of a final nuclear deal could be worked out before a June 30 deadline. Yet Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is both deeply committed to having nuclear weapons capability and suspicious of the U.S. delivering the sanctions relief it would promise in a nuclear agreement, said Samore, casting doubt on the likelihood of a deal taking hold.

The interim nuclear deal with Iran, reached in November 2013, stipulated that the Islamic Republic would dilute its 20-percent-enriched (high grade) uranium down to 5 percent. But Emily Landau, a senior research fellow and head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that Iran still has a vast stockpile of low-enriched uranium that can support six or seven nuclear devices in order to rush to “breakout”—the time it would take to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon.

“Iran made sure that the interim deal didn’t really harm its breakout capability,” Landau said. “Yes, it stopped one route, which is 20-percent-enriched uranium. But they kept the other route. And remember, Iran is always looking at the long term.”

Samore said the ongoing nuclear talks have been stalemated over sanctions relief. He said the Iranians are demanding the removal of all sanctions within six months of a deal’s approval—something that is “not politically possible” for the U.S., which is seeking “graduated and conditional sanctions relief” based on Iran’s compliance with nuclear probes such as those conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations-affiliated nuclear watchdog. The latest IAEA report said Iran is not fully cooperating with the watchdog’s investigation.

Landau said that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, formerly the country’s chief nuclear negotiator, is “committed to Iran’s nuclear program” but merely differs from Khamenei “in tactic.” Rouhani, she said, believes Iran needs to be at the negotiating table in order to get maximal sanctions relief in exchange for minimal nuclear concessions.

Rouhani is “biding his time and is convinced now is not the right time” to challenge the U.S. on the nuclear issue, said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank and a top expert on the inner workings of the Iranian regime. Khamenei, Alfoneh said, simply “needs cash” and understands that the only way Iran can avoid bankruptcy is to eliminate sanctions.

Obama, meanwhile, can actually benefit from the current American partisan dispute on Iran sanctions by sending “a message to Tehran that if you are not willing to make a deal with me, you are going to deal with those Republicans in Congress,” Alfoneh explained.

Yet Sherman said that even if the Obama administration makes a deal with Iran, the agreement only “binds the individual who executes the signature.” In January 2017, therefore, the new U.S. president will not be bound by the deal Obama signs.

At a plenary session that kicked off the AIPAC conference on Sunday, U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) both called for strict oversight of the Iranian nuclear program in any deal that is reached with the Islamic Republic.

Graham said he is “glad we’re negotiating” with Iran because nobody wants a war. But Congress should “look at the deal, debate the deal, and vote on the deal” that the P5+1 powers reach with Iran. The deadline for a political framework agreement in the Iran talks is March 24.

“Between now and when that day [a deal is reached] comes, let us commit ourselves to make sure that as many eyes are on this deal before it becomes binding,” said Graham, who said that a bad deal with Iran would constitute “locking in place an enrichment program that is only monitored by the U.N. (United Nations).”

Cardin said the nuclear deal “has to be a very transparent agreement” with “inspectors there on the ground, [with] total access to all parts of Iran.”

One of 11 Senate Democrats who currently supports increased sanctions against Iran if no framework deal is reached by March 24, Cardin said sanctions are only reason that Iran is negotiating with the U.S. and other world powers.

“We’ve got to keep the heat on. … I have no doubt that Congress will pass stronger sanctions if there’s no agreement reached,” he said.

Graham noted that the Iranians have “toppled four Arab capitals”—in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—and would likely use sanctions-relief money to further ramp up their regional military efforts.

“These are the people we’re trying to negotiate with about a nuclear weapon. What would they do if they had a nuclear weapon?” Graham said, adding that Iran would destroy Israel if it could. Arab nations who have not built nuclear capability in response to Israel’s alleged nuclear program, because they trust Israel not to wipe them off the map, would not “trust the Shi’a Persians (Iran) with nuclear capability,” said Graham.

Rep. Sherman also stressed that the nuclear issue is only part of the equation when it comes to Iran and the entire region.

“The Iranians almost assassinated the Saudi ambassador here in Washington (in 2011) and they blew up the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires (in 1994). … Those who think that all we have to do to make the Middle East better is one last time, go on in and get ride of ISIS (Islamic State) and everything will be wonderful, haven’t taken Iran into account,” Sherman said.

Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former National Security Advisor, said that anyone who believes Iran “will be a stabilizing force in the area, he doesn’t understand the regime’s DNA.”

“It’s like building a very good palace on ice,” he said, offering an analogy to building the Middle East off of the foundation of presumed stability generated by Iran. “At the end of the day, the sun will be there, and the ice will disappear.”

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